Young's Bay gillnetter

Federal legislation is meant to help fishermen like Capt. Doug Chambers, pictured gillnetting on Young’s Bay on April 16. Young’s Bay between Astoria and Warrenton is one of a small number of places around the Columbia River estuary where salmon reared in net pens are specifically designated for commercial fishermen. See more fishing news in today's Coast River Business Journal.

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about the rural/urban divide in Washington and Oregon, and how we see that working out with commercial fisheries. Probably the most obvious example of conflict between the two entities lies in reallocation from commercial fisheries, which are largely rural, to recreational fisheries, largely urban. This is particularly obvious with salmon fisheries, but not confined to them alone. In recent years we have seen Puget Sound crab and shrimp go down that same road.

I believe that reallocation of this kind is a result of the push toward increased outdoor recreation that has occurred over the past decade or more. On the surface it seems like a good idea, encouraging urban dwellers to participate in more outdoor recreation, which has health benefits and provides a respite from urban stressors. Outdoor recreation is also part of the tourism industry. It has not gone unnoticed in rural areas that restrictions on land, timber and fisheries in rural coastal counties in the name of “salmon recovery” have left these counties out of any economic feedback benefits, except for tourism and recreation, which are seasonal and do not provide much economic return. However, as is being discovered internationally, tourism has limits. Ports are now trying to manage excessive cruise ship landings. In the U.S., we are seeing national parks inundated with traffic. Fisheries managers too must face the fact that they have to set limits on different fisheries in order to maintain fish populations and viable commercial and sport fisheries. Reallocating to a recreational fishery may not be best for the fish or the environment.

What happened to salmon recovery? The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission forsook the Lower Columbia River Recovery Plan for nearly a decade in order to focus on Harvest Policy C3620, reallocating most of the commercial gillnet fisheries’ share of salmon to enhance recreational fisheries. We are now at least 10 years behind in recovery, and the run projections for 2020 are very poor, and will limit the harvest available along much of the West Coast. Commercial fishermen, a force for recovery, have been allocated out of the issue. Contrast the Columbia with Bristol Bay, a gillnetting alternative for many fishermen in the lower 48 states. It is the most productive salmon fishery on the West Coast. Fishermen there — both young and old, native, residents and non-residents — have aggressively pushed back on the notion of Pebble Mine, which could decimate Bristol fish runs. Give fishermen fish to catch, and they’ll fight to protect them. When it comes to salmon recovery and wellbeing, to quote Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York regarding the fight against covid-19, “You don’t win on defense, you win on offense.”

Salmon fishermen see abundance in Bristol Bay, with its pristine habitat, an annual renewal of memory that reminds us that it was once like that here along the West Coast. Without ample salmon, not only are there no fisheries, there are likely to be no fish in the future. On the flip side, Willapa, Grays Harbor and Columbia River gillnet harvest policies were not informed by science, but were implemented without it. Only now, after many years of significant losses to communities in this coastal region, are those policies being reviewed with scientific evidence to figure out what went wrong, which turns out to be almost everything. Again, quoting Cuomo in his March 28 briefing on the coronavirus epidemic, “The numbers should drive the policy.” The failure of this kind of policy making should be a lesson to all those involved in the “Gold Rush” atmosphere that surrounded Policy C-3620.

Wealth may take on different forms in rural and urban areas. A fishing business is a form of wealth that depends upon a combination of a vessel (usually, but not always), gear, equipment, and a permit. Permits are bought and sold via something akin to a stock market. You can find prices in Fishermen’s News and online. Many fishers’ concept of retirement is that they will sell their business and fund their retirement from the proceeds. They may or may not have an individual retirement account or 401(k). When businesses are confiscated for reallocation to a recreational fishery without any compensation, it may dramatically affect the injured party’s retirement funding. It would be akin to taking the 401(k) funding from urban dwellers to finance a public golf course. Rural dwellers are no different than urban dwellers in that they want to be compensated for confiscation or redirection of their property. The issue appears to be one of perception, in that urban dwellers believe that rural areas by their very nature should be willing to share their wealth — i.e. land, trees, fish, natural resources — with the public, or for the public good, without compensation.

The recreational fishing industry has been given far too much say in how to operate commercial fisheries. The two are fundamentally very different. Giving recreational fishing major input over issues such as buyback, observers and so forth has created significant problems, including ill will. To use buyback as an example: If you had a home in Seattle, and someone moved in next door with two constantly barking dogs, loud music operating day and night, and who dumped garbage over your fence and shouted obscenities at your family, you might want to move. Would you then ask the neighbor to set a price for your house, and the rules about whom you could sell it to? Obviously not. Why would anyone expect commercial fishers to accept recreational fisheries’ restrictions on how they might sell their businesses and for what price? The values of recreational fishing do not necessarily apply to commercial fishing, and they have not always been good neighbors. (I do want to commend and support those recreational groups that have been willing to work together on issues of mutual concern. They are creating a better future for everyone, and especially the fish.)

What we are seeing in our small fishing communities, due to harvest restrictions and adverse legislative initiatives that hamper rural economies, is a serous loss of infrastructure. What once were working waterfronts now house shops selling T-shirts or cannabis. Since fishing communities tend to be near water and situated in beautiful landscapes, there is demand by more wealthy urbanites for property in order to build a second or even a third home. This trend in turn makes housing for the locals more expensive, and also reduces locales available for needed infrastructure, such as ice machines, fuel docks and marine repair shops. Additionally, replacing natural resource jobs with technology-related employment is frequently not feasible in rural areas, which suffer from a lack of up-to-date technological infrastructure ranging from bandwidth issues to lack of cell phone service.

This “gentrification” of fishing communities is accompanied by another trend that began some years ago, when state and federal government agencies, facing severe cutbacks in their budgets, reduced services offered in rural areas. In Wahkiakum County, one can no longer get an auto license renewed locally. Instead, it’s a 30-mile drive to the nearest motor-vehicles office. Nursing homes, rural hospitals and clinics are closing all across rural areas in the U.S. A reevaluation of how to provide services to rural areas is overdue. Part of the reason for the rise of the Timber Unity movement is that many rural industries need fossil fuels to operate and live at a considerable distance from urban areas, where many services are found. The call for “cap and trade” now looks punitive to those communities, because they believe they are victims of the very state agencies that reduced local services and forced people to drive long distances to obtain them, and now are penalizing those same people for their carbon footprint.

One practice that needs to stop is that of legislators creating “legislation about us, without us.” Legislators need to consult with us before introducing legislation regarding the fishing industry. The long-term consequences for rural communities and the fishing occupation show up in the persistent negative social statistics in these areas. Such practices do not inspire confidence in the political party that uses this way of passing legislation. If our voices are not being heard, or we have no representation on commissions who develop policy, voters will look for someone who will represent their interests or turn to the courts for redress. The urban-centered policies of the last decades have come at a high cost to rural coastal Washington and Oregon in terms of negative social statistics re health, high mortality rates, juvenile suicides, alcohol and drug use. Little to no attempt has been made to understand fishing and marine cultures and communities. As one fisherman activist I know frequently says, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

The coronavirus pandemic caused Gov. Jay Inslee to declare what “essential occupations” are considered to be in Washington state. Commercial fisheries are in that group. It would be extremely helpful if that attitude — that commercial fishing is essential to the well-being of Washington state — were to carry on in the Washington State Legislature, agencies and elsewhere, after the coronavirus pandemic is viewed from the rear-view mirror.

Irene Martin, an expert on Pacific Northwest fisheries and history, lives in Skamokawa with her husband Kent, a lifelong fisherman. This commentary was first published in Fishermen’s News and is reprinted here by permission.

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